Pins and Needles: All about the North American porcupine

Porcupine2 HartMt May1982
Quills of North American porcupine

Have you been pining away wishing you knew more about porcupines? Well today is your lucky day! Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the North American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, but were afraid to ask.


The North American porcupine ranges throughout most of Canada and the western United States south to Mexico. They also live in the northern Great Lakes and northeastern United States regions.

Identification & unique characteristics:

North American porcupines are a large rodent with black to brownish-yellow fur and distinct quills that cover most of their bodies. They range in weight from 11 to 30 pounds and measure 24 to 36 inches in length. Porcupines are excellent climbers with short strong legs, long claws, and hairless soles on their feet. They have a small head and rounded ears.

Porcupines can be covered with as many as 30,000 quills. The quills are solid at the base and tip but have a sort of spongy texture in the middle. They are barbed at the tip and used for defense. Quills are not thrown at another animal. Porcupines raise their quills, release a nasty scent, and lash out with their tail if an animal approaches too closely. The porcupine releases quills that become embedded in the skin and expand with body heat. Quills that hit a sensitive area may cause death.

Porcupines are very vocal. Their calls include a variety of moans, grunts, coughs, wails, whines, shrieks, and tooth-clicking. Vocalizations and scents are used to attract mates. They have poor vision but a good sense of smell.

North American porcupine at Hart Mountain National Antelope Range, OR
North American porcupine at Hart Mountain National Antelope Range, OR

North American Porcupine Behavior & life history:

Porcupines are usually a solitary animal that is mostly nocturnal. They occasionally den with others in winter months. They do not hibernate. Dens are made in caves and decaying hollow logs and trees.

Both male and female porcupines defend a territory, though males do so more actively. Mating occurs in October and November. Males fight over females and display their “weaponry” on their backs and tails. An elaborate mating dance is performed for the females. Gestation last seven months and the young “porcupettes” are born with soft quills. The quills ordinarily harden in about an hour. North American porcupines usually have a single porcupette. Young porcupines begin to forage when they are just a couple of days old. They generally stay with their mother for about five months.

Porcupines are herbivores and they feed on leaves, twigs, buds, fruit, nuts, and bark. Their herbivorous diet makes them crave salt so they sometimes chew on the handles of human tools and structures. They also eat de-icing salt deposits on roads.

Predators include mountain lions, lynx, bobcat, coyote, wolves, wolverines, fishers, and great horned owls. Fishers use hunting techniques that minimize their chances of getting poked by the quills. Porcupines are long-lived mammals and can live up to 18 years in the wild and 23 years in captivity.

North American porcupine at High Desert Museum, OR
North American porcupine at High Desert Museum, OR

Habitat needs:

Porcupines live in many different habitats from sea level to high elevation. They live in deciduous and coniferous forests, open tundra, and desert environments.

North American Porcupine Status & conservation:

North American porcupine population levels are stable in most of their range but localized populations have been affected by several factors. Higher populations of predators, such as fishers and mountain lions, have caused lower porcupine numbers. Changes in logging management practices and pest infestations may affect their food source. Occasionally this animal will be hit by vehicles when it is trying to cross a road. In the past they were poisoned due to their habit of foraging on crops such as trees and corn.

Interesting facts:

Native Americans incorporated the porcupine into their mythology. Tribes associated the animal with traits such as cautiousness, humility, modesty, and luck. Porcupines were used as a food source and their quills were used as decorations on clothing and other items. Lakota women would throw a blanket over a surprised porcupine and retrieve the quills it had released into the blanket to use in their quillwork.

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